Study Guide

The Wizard of Oz Music (Score)

Music (Score)

Harold Arlen and E.Y. Harburg

Three guys brought us the wonderful score to the wonderful Wizard. Well, technically, it was one guy, composer Herbert Stothart, but he took his cues from Harold Arlen and E.Y. "Yip" Harburg, who wrote the songs. Those two are probably the most important people involved with the score, since Stothart pretty much cribbed from them the whole way through.

In fact, the songs are actually more important than the score, since they dominate the action for the first two-thirds of the movie, and include the likes of "Over the Rainbow," "Ding Dong, The Witch Is Dead" and "If I Only Had a Brain." You know: the ones no one has ever heard of and certainly don't get sung over and over in nightclubs, gay pride parades and in the shower the world over.

Arlen came from New York City, where he had a background in vaudeville and wrote shows for the famous Cotton Club in Harlem with his lyricist Ted Koehler. They were no strangers to hit songs, writing the likes of "Stormy Weather," "Get Happy" and "Let's Fall in Love." (We know, we know: they all sound like grandma music, but grandma was young once, too.)

The Cotton Club was a pretty wild place, and when Arlen got married in the 1930s, he needed to slow down a bit. So he headed out to Hollywood to write songs for the movies, joining forces with Harburg, who had also come from New York. (And seriously, who wouldn't want to team up with a guy nicknamed Yip?)

How good were their songs? You can hear one – "Lydia the Tattooed Lady" – from Marx Brothers in the film At the Circus, then the same one again from Kermit the Frog on The Muppet Show, and then yet again from Robin Williams in The Fisher King. That's some staying power, that is.

Believe it or not, their best was yet to come. MGM was impressed by their sense of whimsy and thought it would be a perfect fit for a movie involving flying monkeys and talking scarecrows. They were asked to write the songs for The Wizard of Oz, with Stothart on hand to write the underscoring. Stothart was a bit of a grand old man at MGM, having written for them for the preceding decade. It's safe to say they knocked it out of the park on this one.

And yet despite all of that heavy hitting in the movie's corner, MGM almost killed their greatest creation. The bigwigs thought it was ridiculous to have a girl singing in a barnyard and tried to cut "Over the Rainbow" from the movie. Three times. Three freaking times. Arlen rolled up his sleeves and went to bat for the song, and eventually won out. Good thing too. Today it's generally regarded as the greatest song ever written for a film, and we bet you're singing it to yourself as you read this. Well done on that one, Harold.

Oh yeah, and one more thing: all three men won the Oscar for their work on the film. Stothart won Best Original Score, and Arlen and Harburg won for that song that everyone tried to kill. We'd say they darn well earned it.